Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Ian Fisher is a college admissions consultant for College Coach. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Reed College before attending Stanford University, at which he earned his master’s degree in education policy. Ian previously served as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.
How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Ian: The application itself really shouldn’t be started until the early fall of the senior year. Most applications don’t actually launch until after August 1, so you can’t start filling them out anyway. That said, you can do some leg work to get the bulk of the application done well beforehand. Students should develop an activities list or resume that tracks their involvement throughout high school, and they should begin work on the personal statement, the proverbial college essay, over the summer after 11th grade.
What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Ian: My first piece of advice is for students to begin by ignoring the essay prompts all together, whether they’re writing a personal statement for the Common App or for a school-specific application. The prompts will be important as you begin crafting your essay, but they shouldn’t determine what you plan to write about. I encourage students to take some time to reflect on important questions: What are you passionate about? What experiences have shaped you? What is missing from your application that you want to convey to an admissions officer? Among your friends and family, what are you known for? What adjectives best capture who you are? The goal here is for the student to meaningfully consider his identity before diving into the writing process—it might reveal a topic that he wouldn’t have considered if he had started with the prompts.
Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Ian: Writing a sports essay is challenging because so much has been written about sports that it’s hard to be original. There are only so many ways one can describe her competitiveness or feelings of accomplishment at winning the big game. There are rare cases where a sports essay truly is the best essay for a student, but it doesn’t happen all that often. I also would caution students to stay away from writing about experiences in third-world countries or working as a volunteer among other disadvantaged groups. Rarely do students have the maturity and thoughtfulness to engage significant differences in privilege or opportunity, and essays along this vein often come across as trite or oblivious.
What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Ian: It is always really clear to an admission officer when a student doesn’t put full effort into his application. If you have simple typos or other errors that suggest you don’t care about the school to which you’re applying, you’re not endearing yourself to your admissions officer. Be sure to treat every aspect of the application with care, to proofread for mistakes, and to give supplemental essays the same attention that you give to the personal statement. You want to convey your seriousness about a particular school, and that can be done by submitting an airtight, error-free application.
What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Ian: Every institution reads applications differently, and every admission officer has his own habits when it comes to reading a file. When I worked at Reed, my colleagues and I read the application materials in different orders, depending on our own style. I always started with the personal statement before moving on to extracurricular involvement, test scores, the transcript, letters of recommendation, and the supplement. I wanted to hear who the student was in his own words before getting to the rest of the file, and that was a great way for students to get me on their side (or not!) before seeing their academic record.
You can certainly count on an admission officer to read every word of your essays and other required materials—they wouldn’t ask for that content if they didn’t plan to read it. You can also expect that a reader won’t spend more than about 10 to 15 minutes on a single file, so you have precious little time to make an impact.
What do you think is the single most important thing a student should make sure they present in the best possible way on their application?
Ian: Most of the content of the application is out of your control by the time you start working on it. Your grades are what they are, as are your scores. You can’t tell your teachers or counselor what to write about you—their recommendations will be filled with their own words. The only aspects of the application you have full control over are the way you describe your extracurricular activities and your essay. Put extra thought into conveying the details of your involvement (what you did is much more important than titles or positions held) and the voice that you develop through your essay.
How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Ian: The best way to learn about a school’s culture is by visiting. Take the official tour and information session and talk to student workers in the admission office. This will develop the institution’s view of itself and the values to which it aspires. Then, take the conversation to the unofficial side of campus. Talk to students in the dining hall, the library, and the quad. See whether the official spiel is corroborated by the average student. What is life on campus like? How do students spend their free time? What would they change about their school? The more people you talk to, the more you can hone in on the reality of that college experience.
Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Ian: I only recommend early decision (ED) for students who have an unquestioned number-one choice. There is so much press about advantages for applying ED that I worry students are putting all their eggs in one basket without truly being excited about a school. Sure, ED can help you get in, but do you really want to go there more than anywhere else? If you can’t confidently say yes, ED is not for you.
For early action (EA), I recommend students apply EA if their application is as good as it is going to be at the time of the deadline (typically November 1). If you’re organized and on top of the ball, EA is a great way for you to get some information from colleges much earlier in the process—December or January as opposed to late-March. That said, if you need the help of a solid senior fall to pull up your GPA or to demonstrate that you can manage rigorous coursework, it’s better to wait and submit your application with fall grades. For students that had a sub-par 11th grade, I almost always encourage them to apply regular decision after bringing their performance back up to par in 12th grade.
How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Ian: For the vast majority of colleges, your academic record is the most important factor in the admissions process. A school will first look at grades and coursework to get a sense of the kind of student you are, then it will look at your test scores to see how your compare to other students nationwide and what kind of academic potential you have. If your “numbers” make you competitive for admission, the college will turn to other aspects of your application to decide whether you’ll be admitted or denied. Only in rare cases will a student who is well below average academically be offered admission, and that is usually because of a compelling point of excellence elsewhere in her file.
For students who are poor testers, I highly recommend researching schools with test-optional policies. These schools will give the student the option of submitting test scores, and this can be a great option for a student with a strong transcript and weaker test scores. For a list of test-optional schools, consult fairtest.org.
What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Ian: Be respectful of your teachers’ time! Request recommendations at the end of your junior year, if you can. When you return to school in the fall, let your teachers know where you plan to apply, when they can expect to receive the request for the letter of recommendation, and when the letter of recommendation needs to be submitted. Ask them if they have any questions for you, or if you can provide them with any information that will help them write a better letter of recommendation. Teachers know that writing these letters is a part of their job, but they will look much more favorably upon those students who manage the recommendation process with thoughtfulness and maturity. Stay on your teachers’ good sides!
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.